Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn: The Middle Of The End

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Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

In this game, Arsenal played with such soporific slovenliness that it was as if they were trying to lull us in to such a stupour that the inevitable sucker punch wouldn’t sting quite so much.

To be fair, it worked. When Colin Kazim-Richards ran untracked through the midfield to fire home after Wojciech Szczesny’s feeble parry, I wasn’t surprised. There was a grim inevitability about the whole scene.

When Jack Wilshere fell in a crumpled heap at the final whistle, I felt for him. But any angst on my part was tempered by familiarity. His anguish was fresh, but mine has been dulled by duplication: I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen Cesc Fabregas similarly felled, and Robin van Persie too; great players, folding under the strain of swimming against a tide of mediocrity.

After Bradford and Blackburn, Arsenal now face a cup clash with Bayern Munich. One hardly imagines the Germans are quaking in their boots. A bad result at the Emirates on Tuesday night could all but guarantee us an eighth consecutive campaign without a trophy.

Things could be worse, I know. Whenever he comes under scrutiny, Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that Arsenal are not in a relegation battle. However, I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it.

It’s about expectation. Reading are very much in a relegation battle, but that doesn’t mean Brian McDermott is under-performing. Equally, Arsenal might be well clear of 18th place, but they are falling below the standards expected of the club.

Those who criticise the manager are often characterized as pessimists, but it strikes me that there is an optimistic slant to their discontent. They see the potential of the club to be in a far better position than it currently is.

Replacing the manager doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee of positive change. However, an ever-increasing wealth of evidence suggests that keeping the manager absolutely guarantees more of the same.

I’m often asked when I’ll finally join the “Wenger Out!” brigade. Well, the answer is that I almost certainly never will. I’ve no time for brigades, or any other tactical military formations for that matter. Similarly, bandwagons have always struck me as an outmoded form of transport. I’ll make up my own mind on where I stand. I refuse to buy in to the dichotomy that has been imposed on the Arsenal supporter base, splitting us in to “AKB”s and “Doomers”. The reality, and my own position, is far more complex.

I will never chant for the removal of a man who has given me some of my greatest memories. However, I do believe there are certain fundamental issues with the management of the team that will only be resolved by a change of manager. Whether this summer would be the optimum time to do that, I don’t know: it depends on the availability of alternatives.

It’s moot, anyway. Arsene Wenger is no closer to leaving Arsenal today than he was on Friday. Negative results do not edge him closer to the door; only time and the running down of his contract do that. His current deal runs till 2014, and I find it impossible to foresee him leaving before that date. He may even be handed a renewal.

The extrication of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal will be a long and painful process, for both sides. I’d argue it’s a process that is already underway. It began when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri abandoned Arsene’s project, and will end the day whatever contract he is bound to is allowed to expire.

Ivan Gazidis will not push him. Arsene will not jump. In the meantime, here we are: stuck in the middle of the end.

Blackburn Preview & Betting odds: Return of The Rat King

Clashes between Arsenal and Blackburn are traditionally tasty affairs.  Well, the taste of this one is a little off this morning.  The secret ingredient is, perhaps surprisingly, not horse, but a touch of rat: David Bentley has made a return to Blackburn just in time to be eligible to play at the Emirates.

It’s the return of the prodigal son.  If the prodigal son’s Dad had hated his son, and greeted his return predominantly with boos.

David Bentley is a funny one.  I was there for his remarkable first goal in professional football: a beautiful, Bergkamp-esque chip from the edge of the box.  However, his attitude never quite matched up to his ability, and aged just 28 his career appears to be petering out.  One wonders if he’d shown more patience and remained at Arsenal how things might have turned out.  Football is a game of sliding doors as well as tackles.

As it is, I think Arsenal fans are pretty much united in their hatred of all things Bentley.  It’s everything from his murine appearance to his affiliation with Spurs and preposterously over-gelled hair.  That said, I think we’re all lying if we say we don’t fancy him to stick one in the net against us today.  Were I more of a betting man, I’d put the lives of my imaginary children on it.  He’s got spectacular previous at the Emirates, too.

Whatever Bentley gets up to, Arsenal should have enough to see off Blackburn today.  I expect rests for the likes of Wilshere, Giroud and perhaps even Walcott, but our side will still be strong.  Thomas Vermaelen is likely to play at centre-back, with Nacho Monreal outside him.  Abou Diaby comes in to contention for a midfield berth, and the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho will be hoping to get some much-needed game-time in attacking areas.  I think Gervinho may well get a start at centre-forward, although whatever the odds (5/1 as it happens) I wouldn’t be queueing up to lay money on him to score.

I’m backing us to win this one.  The bookmakers are too, I see (we’re 1.28 to win with https://sports.bwin.com/en/sports/4/betting/football).

Blackburn are not the force they were, and at home we should be far too strong.  However, I’ve said that before and been wrong.

And with The Rat King in their ranks, you just never know.

Brighton 2 – 3 Arsenal: That’s more like it, Olivier

Brighton 2 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup after an entertaining tie with Brighton, who can consider themselves a little unfortunate not to have earned themselves the payday of a replay of the Emirates.

The back and forth nature of the game was demonstrated as early as the 15th minute. Wojciech Szczesny made a superb save at one end to prevent Brighton taking the lead, yet within seconds it was Arsenal who were in front. A swift counter-attack looked to have petered out when Lukas Podolski dribbled in to the midst of several defenders, but the German managed to lay the ball off to the waiting Giroud, who bent an expert finish in to the top corner from the edge of the box.

Parity was restored, unsurprisingly, from a set piece. Our dreadful zonal marking system allowed Ashley Barnes a free run at Wojciech Szczesny. As inevitably happens in such a situation, the man with the run up won the leap for the ball, and the net bulged. 1-1.

After half-time it was Giroud again who put us in front. Abou Diaby lifted a beautiful pass over the top of the centre-backs; Giroud latched on to it, held off his man, and used an outstretched left leg to thump the ball high in to the goal. It was a really fantastic finish, showcasing the best of Giroud: the movement, the determination and the power.

It only took Brighton five minutes to strike back, and it won’t surprise anyone to know it came from a cross. It also came down our left-flank, where Andre Santos was ambling around with a palpable lack of confidence, desire and positional sense.

The cavalry were called for, and with twenty minutes to go Arsene introduced Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. The latter proved to be the match-winner, meeting a goalkeeper’s punch with a volley that deflected before finding the corner of the net. Cruel on Brighton; crucial for Arsenal.

Walcott now has 17 goals for the season. It’s some record: he’s only made 17 starts.

The star of the show, however, remained Olivier Giroud. Four goals in his last two games have taken his tally to 13, but his performance in this game was about more than statistics. He worked tirelessly, and the finishes he produced were of real quality. It’s no exaggeration to say that Robin van Persie would have been proud of the second – and indeed the chipped through-ball from Abou Diaby made this goal particularly reminiscent of the Song / Van Persie connection of last season.

Let’s not kid ourselves: however well Giroud played, he’s no Van Persie. However, in the last few days he’s made a convincing case for a prolonged run of games at centre-forward. I still feel we would benefit from a signing in this area, but if someone does arrive they’ll have to oust a Frenchman in form.

One lingering criticism of Giroud is that his goals tend to come against weaker opposition. The upcoming Premier League tie with Liverpool would be a perfect time to put that to bed, and put our league campaign firmly back on track.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Swansea: Jack Wilshere, Perfect 10

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Arsenal 1 – 0 Swansea
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

A few games in to Jack Wilshere’s comeback, I scoffed at those who had suggested it would take him a little time to get back to his best. His first few all-action displays suggested to me that Wilshere had hit the ground running, and was immediately playing at something close to full capacity.

How wrong I was; how right they were. Jack was merely finding his feet. In the last two matches, Wilshere’s development has accelerated dramatically.

This isn’t the Wilshere we remember. This one’s better.

This Jack Wilshere is armoured with months of gym work and a fierce desire to make up for lost time. He is physically and mentally stronger for the ordeal he has suffered, and it shows. Against City his courage and resilience saw him emerge as the heartbeat of this Arsenal side. Against Swansea, he took on a different kind of responsibility.

Ever since his return, Jack has worn the hallowed number 10 on his back. This, however, was the first time since his injury we’ve seen him play as a number 10. The position fits him as well as the shirt. Freed of defensive responsibility, he was a constant menace to the Swansea defence, and it was no surprise when his twenty-yard strike proved the difference.

I have no doubt that Wilshere will follow Cesc Fabregas in moving forward from a deeper role to play behind the striker. It may not be immediate, but it will be soon. In his mid-teens, Jack made waves in youth football as a scorer and creator of goals from midfield. The tools he has learnt playing deep will make him a better all-round player, but ultimately his future lines in the attacking third.

Deploying Jack there also seems to give Arsenal better balance. Behind him, the platform of Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin looked relatively secure, and moving Santi Cazorla in to the front three did little to diminish the Spaniard’s influence, and added fluency and creativity to our forward play. Coquelin did particularly well on the night – I was heartened to see the team’s least experienced player cajoling his team-mates back in to position as we hold on to our 1-0 lead.

This was a well deserved victory, which would have been much more comfortable but for some poor finishing from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. Despite the likelihood of the former signing a new deal, and my growing affection for the latter, my one hope for this transfer window is that we bring in a goalscorer. With each passing day, however, that hope diminishes.

This is no time for negativity, though. Arsenal have maneuvered past a difficult draw with Swansea and are still in the cup. What’s more, I saw enough tonight at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge to think that we might be able to give an imploding Chelsea side a very good game on Sunday.

If we do, you can bet that Jack Wilshere will be at the heart of it. Thomas Vermaelen is Arsenal’s captain in name alone. That armband, just like that number 10 role, is Jack’s destiny.

My bet is on him to fulfill the role permanently one day. Are you interested in doing some betting on an upcoming Premier League fixture? Make sure you head over to www.bwin.com and check out their fantastic odds!

Swansea 2-2 Arsenal: Podolski shows the value of having quality in reserve

Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I think arseblog called it right when he said this was a game we could have lost and yet should have won.  For a long time, it looked as if this was going to be one of those games for Arsenal: we had plenty of possession without doing very much with it.  Swansea, however, were typically efficient, and looked a threat every time their passing game developed in to a full-blown attack.

The first half was a tepid, turgid affair.  This Arsenal team seem to have an ‘all or nothing’ approach to fluidity; when they fail to click, it’s like milking a rottweiler: painful for everyone involved and ugly on the eye.  The game only exploded in to life with the introduction of Michu.

The Spaniard came on as a 56th minute substitute.  By the 58th minute, he’d scored.  He looped the ball over Per Mertesacker, sprinted past the off-form German, and held off Laurent Koscielny to score his fifteenth goal of the campaign.  Just as at the Emirates a month or so ago, I was hugely impressed by his movement, strength, and technical ability.  Come the start of next season, he ought to be playing for a Champions League club.

The goal came against the run of play.  Arsenal had begun the second half with considerably more purpose, with the tireless forward momentum of Kieran Gibbs a key feature.  It was a substitute of our own who would help bring just reward: Lukas Podolski.  He himself had been on for less than ten minutes when he turned to volley home after Swansea failed to clear a Theo Walcott corner.

It was a stunning finish: for all the talk about Theo Walcott, the German is the most clinical man in front of goal at the club.  Some supporters seem frustrated by his habit of disappearing in certain games, but I’d suggest that pattern is typical of a forward in a side struggling for fluency.  When we’re off our game, his movement goes unnoticed and he can be very quiet.  When we’re in the groove, however, there is no player I trust more to make the most of opportunities to score or create.  His goal yesterday takes his tally for the season to 10; impressive for a player at the halfway point of his first season in English football.

Having grabbed the equaliser, Arsenal had all the momentum, and there was a touch of Podolski about their second goal too.  Kieran Gibbs played a one-two with Olivier Giroud to meet his clipped pass with a sumptuous volley that had more than a hint of Poldi’s against Montpellier about it.  It was just reward for a storming performance from Gibbs.  Whilst I appreciate he is prone to the occasional defensive lapse, his energy, stamina and positive running from left-back make up for it on balance, and I was delighted for him to get a deserved goal.

Having taken the lead with just seven minutes to play, most teams would expect to hold on for the victory.  N.B. : ‘most teams’.  Arsenal had other ideas, and their static zonal marking came a-cropper again when Danny Graham was left free at the far post to thump in a late equaliser from a corner.  Mikel Arteta will be particularly disappointed with his failure to close the striker down.

All in all, I’m content with the draw.  It meant Arsenal went in to the hat for the fourth round, when for 83 minutes that looked dubious at best.  The impact of Podolski from the bench was a lesson in the value of having quality in reserve.  The problem Arsenal have going forward is that Podolski was only on the bench to save his tired legs.  Ordinarily, they wouldn’t be able to turn to someone of that calibre to bail them out.

You can see where I’m going with this: with loan departures for Marouane Chamakh and Johan Djourou now confirmed, it’s time for Arsenal to take advantage of that space in the squad and bring in some new players.  Arsene repeated his post-match mantra of being on the lookout for “one or two” additions; I hope he’s bluffing and that those targets were identified long ago.  A month is not as long as he seems to think.

Arsenal now face a replay with Swansea on the 16th of January.  The winner of that game will travel to Brighton in the FA Cup fourth round.  Along with the rescheduled game with West Ham, it means Arsenal have a pretty hectic month ahead, and any reinforcements will thus be all the more welcome.

Arsene might be worried about 8 games in four weeks, but for supporters it means a veritable feast of football.  Bring it on.